Time CAPSule: 1975 - 1976 Season in Review
Written by Mike Vogel in 1999 for WashingtonCaps.com
It would have been virtually impossible for the 1975-76 Washington Capitals to suffer from a sophomore slump. In their inaugural season, the Caps set NHL records for fewest wins (eight), fewest points (21), most losses (67) and most road losses (39). But second year improvements were few and minimal.
The '75-76 bunch won 11 games and accumulated 32 points. Five of the team's 11 wins came on the road. But the Caps failed to win consecutive games for the second straight season. The offense picked up a bit - Washington scored 43 more goals that it had in its maiden season, an increase of 24% -- but the Capitals again allowed the most goals in the league, 394.
Washington also set a pair of dubious records that it hopes will stand for all time in the franchise annals. The Caps were winless in their first nine contests (0-8-1), a club record for most games without a win at the start of a campaign. But the lowlight of the entire season was a 25-game winless stretch (0-22-3) that spanned 57 days and cost general manager/head coach Milt Schmidt both of his jobs.
Schmidt, who was the Capitals' first-ever general manager, took over behind the Washington bench late in the 1974-75 season, becoming the team's third head coach in the process. He held both roles as the second season got underway but was relieved of both posts on December 29, 1975. The Capitals were 3-28-5 at the time and were in the midst of their long winless streak. Schmidt got his walking papers after a 6-0 home ice loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
Max McNab left his post as the president of the Central Hockey League to take over as Washington's general manager. McNab hired Tommy McVie to take over as the team's head coach. McNab and McVie became the braintrust of a team that had won only 11 of its first 116 games in the league. McVie was a taskmaster who demanded much of his players and worked them hard at practice. However, there was still a significant dearth of hockey talent on the Washington roster, a situation that would not be rectified for several years.
Over the summer between the first two seasons, Schmidt made a deal with the Philadelphia Flyers that he hoped would elevate Washington's talent level. Schmidt agreed to send the first overall pick in the 1975 NHL Entry Draft to the Flyers in exchange for Philly's top pick (the 18th overall pick and the final choice in the first round). Besides the swap of picks, the Capitals received forwards Bill Clement and Don McLean from the Flyers. Clement took over the team's captaincy from the retired Doug Mohns. McLean's career as a Capital lasted all of nine games. The Flyers took Mel Bridgman with the pick obtained from Washington; he went on to score 252 goals and 701 points in a 977-game NHL career.
Clement also proved to be a short-timer in Washington. Barely halfway through the season, he was dealt to Atlanta in exchange for forwards Gerry Meehan and Jean Lemieux and a first round draft pick. The deal was McNab's first as the Caps' GM.
There was a modicum of improvement after the GM and coaching changes in late December. At the time of the housecleaning, the Caps were on pace to duplicate their dismal 21-point performance of 1974-75. The Caps managed to pick up 21 points over the season's second half and finished with 32, a modest increase over the ineptitude of the first year.
Washington's opening night game for the 1975-76 season drew a paltry crowd of 9,375 spectators. The Caps fell to Pittsburgh, 4-2, but there were minor signs of hope in the contest. Defenseman Greg Joly - Washington's first pick in the 1974 Entry Draft scored the team's first goal of the season. Rookie Tony White, the 161st player taken in the 1974 draft, scored his first NHL goal to account for the other Washington tally.
Two games later, the Caps traveled to Pittsburgh for a rematch with the Penguins. The Pens came out on top 7-5, but four different Capitals scored on the power play. The Caps' extra-man unit was one of the few highlights of the early part of the season. The Caps scored seven of their first 13 goals with the man advantage in '75-76.
On October 26, the Capitals traveled to Chicago, bringing with them the weight of an 0-8-1 start. Just as they did in their first season of existence, the Capitals defeated the Blackhawks for their first win of the '75-76 season. Chicago scored twice in the first to take a 2-0 lead, but the Caps bounced back with four in the second. Washington entered the final frame with a 4-3 lead and goaltender Ron Low stopped 21 of 23 third period shots to pace the Caps to a 7-5 victory. Chicago outshot the Caps 53-24 but the Capitals still managed to hang a loss on future Hall of Fame netminder Tony Esposito.
For most of the Caps' history up to this point, Ron Low and Michel Belhumeur had split the team's netminding duties. On October 30, Bernie Wolfe made his NHL debut between the pipes for Washington and he became the first Caps goaltender to win his NHL debut. Wolfe and his mates beat the Kansas City Scouts, 6-2. Tommy Williams - the team's leading scorer in its first season - notched his second two-goal game of the campaign.
It would be nearly a month before Washington would taste victory again. On November 26, the Caps trounced Los Angeles 7-2, the biggest winning margin in franchise history at the time. The Caps tied a team mark with two shorthanded goals (Joly and Ron Lalonde) in a game and White's goal at the 20-second mark of the first set a team record for fastest goal at the start of a game. Thirty-six seconds later, Stan Gilbertson made it 2-0 and the Caps were on their way to a rare laugher.
Gilbertson featured one of Washington's hottest sticks in the early going. He scored his 10th goal of the season on November 12 in the team's 16th game. Gilbertson's goal came against the Penguins, the same team he scored four goals in a single game against late in the 1974-75 season. The Penguins were paying attention; on December 16 they sent center Harvey Bennett to the Capitals in exchange for Gilbertson.
The deal made sense for Washington. Gilbertson was a 31-year-old winger in the midst of a career season while Bennett was a big (6-foot-4, 215-pound), young (23) pivot with promise. It was the last trade made by Schmidt before he was relieved of his duties.
No one knew the drought that lay ahead after that win over the Kings in late November. The Caps dropped a 5-3 decision to Minnesota three nights later, beginning a two-month tailspin that led to Schmidt's ouster. It would be 25 games and 57 days before the Caps would win another contest. Washington went 0-22-3 over the course of its winless string. Five of the losses were shutouts and the Caps were outscored by a total of 140-58 over the duration of the streak. In 17 of the 25 games, the Capitals allowed more than four goals; Washington scored more than four just twice.
On December 6, Montreal drubbed the Caps, 9-3. Yvon Cournoyer had a hat trick and six points; Steve Shutt had five points. The Caps were outshot 54-13 including 23-1 in the third period.
On December 21, Washington absorbed a 14-2 beating in Buffalo, a thumping that stands to this day as the worst in team history. The Caps were outshot 50-16 and Buffalo scored eight goals on 22 third period shots. Cap killer Richard Martin scored four goals and Freddie Stanfield had a hat trick. Only three of the 17 Buffalo skaters dressed for the game failed to register a point.
Just three days after the Buffalo massacre, Williams announced his retirement from the NHL. The game was no longer fun for the fun-loving "Tom the Bomb." He had scored eight goals and 21 points in 34 games but was pointless in seven straight games and was also a minus-33. A widower with young children at home, the 35-year-old Williams closed the book on a solid 13-year career in which he was the most prominent American-born player in the league.
The Caps returned to the ice without their incumbent leading scorer and skated to a 1-1 tie against Minnesota on December 26. The Canadiens came calling to the Capital Centre on December 29. The Caps outshot the Habs 12-9 in the first and were in a scoreless tie when they skated to the locker room at intermission. But the Habs of that era were an explosive bunch. They outshot the Caps 33-15 and outscored them the rest of the way. After the game, Schmidt was informed that he was being replaced.
Two days later, the McNab/McVie era began with similar results. Detroit blanked the Caps, 4-0. The Caps erupted for five goals against The California Golden Seals on January 2, but the Seals set a club record with 51 shots on goal. Powered by Wayne Merrick's hat trick, they beat the Caps, 8-5. Washington then traveled to Montreal where it suffered a 7-0 shutout - its third in four games - at the hands of the Habs.
On January 8, Washington suffered the 100th loss of its existence but did not incur a minor penalty for the first time in its existence. The Caps lone penalty was a five-minute fighting major to Bob Paradise who took on the Blues' Derek Sanderson.
Three nights later, Washington fell to the Bruins by a 7-4 count to run its winless streak to 21 games, tying the NHL record. Johnny Bucyk's hat trick paced Boston. All 11 goals were scored at even strength.
The Caps traveled to Montreal on January 13, hoping against hope for a win that would prevent them from securing full possession of such a dubious record. The Caps fought gamely, but managed only 13 shots in a 3-2 loss. The streak was at 22 and the Caps were in the record books.
The streak reached 25 on January 21 in a 5-2 home ice loss to the Islanders. Only 6565 brave souls showed up at the Capital Centre for that one. A day later, McNab sent Clement to Atlanta for Lemieux and Meehan. With two new players in their lineup, the Caps prepared for a tilt with the Rangers.
The Caps jumped out to a 3-0 lead and Lemieux got it started with a goal on his first shot as a Capital. Unable to stand the prosperity, the Capitals proceeded to give up four unanswered goals in falling behind, 4-3. But the Caps didn't quit. Bob Sirois, White and Ace Bailey scored within a span of 5:52 in the third period to lift Washington to a 6-4 lead. The Caps hung on for a 7-5 win, McVie's first as an NHL head coach. The win lifted the Caps' season record to 4-39-5.
There were some small victories from that point until the end of the season. Nelson Pyatt scored his 20th goal on February 4 in a 4-4 tie with the Maple Leafs. On February 15, the Caps thumped Detroit 8-5 and scored a club record five goals in the third period. Lemieux and Meehan each scored twice in that contest. In the third, Lemieux and Pyatt scored within eight seconds of one another to establish a team standard for the fastest two goals. Pyatt's goal was his 22nd, tying Williams' mark from the inaugural season.
White victimized the Wings for his second hat trick of the season on February 21 and reached the 20-goal plateau in the process.
Despite being outshot 41-19, the Caps gained their first-ever point against Philadelphia in a 5-5 tie before a sellout crowd at the Cap Centre on February 24. The Caps followed that up with a 3-3 home ice tie against Boston. Washington erased a 3-0 Bruins lead to salvage a point in that one. It marked the first time all season that Washington had earned a point in consecutive games. With a 4-1 win over Chicago on February 29, the Caps had a three-game unbeaten streak for the first time in their history.
Washington scored three third period goals to turn a 5-2 deficit into a 5-5 tie against Kansas City on March 23. Despite being outshot 52-27, the Caps edged the Penguins 5-4 on April 3. It was Washington's fifth road win of the season.
There were also more downtrodden times, too. A February 7 loss to Kansas City ended the Scouts' 16-game winless streak. The Rangers battered the Caps 11-4 on February 18. New York's Steve Vickers had a career night with a hat trick and seven points. Philadelphia pummeled the Caps 11-2 at the Spectrum on April 1. Bill Barber had a hat trick for the Flyers, who outshot the Caps by a 62-22 margin.
The season mercifully came to an end on April 4. The Caps hosted the Canadiens in front of a sellout crowd and put on a good show against the league's heavyweight team. The Caps were outshot 39-24 but actually held a 3-2 lead late in the third period. Yvon Lambert tied it for the Habs with only 2:17 remaining and Guy Lafleur scored the game-winner just 24 seconds later.
The Caps finished up at 11-59-10, good for 32 points. Washington wound up 95 points behind division-leading Montreal, which lost only 11 games and piled up 127 points.
The Capitals had just endured two years of almost total futility. Worse, they had no star players and it was becoming apparent that the highly touted draft picks from the previous season - Greg Joly and Mike Marson - were not going to develop into stars.
Respectability was still years away but the Capitals needed a star, and they would get one before opening night of the 1976-77 season.